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Battles and bugs: Hands-on with Zynga's freemium Facebook outing Empires & Allies

I love the smell of Facebook in the morning

Battles and bugs: Hands-on with Zynga's freemium Facebook outing Empires & Allies
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| Empires & Allies

With numerous hits such as FarmVille and CityVille under its Facebook belt, Zynga is unquestionably the king of the social gaming market.

Not content with simply attracting thousands of casual players to Zuckerberg's social network each month, though, Zynga has released the more demanding and involving Empires & Allies.

Combining elements of CityVille with a dash of Risk-esque strategy and a greater emphasis on story, Zynga is hoping to attract a wider demographic of gamer with this new combat strategy title.

So, let's take a look at it.

Build a bridge over the River Kwai

You begin Empires & Allies with a devastated city, following an attack from enemy forces. Left with a landscape of destroyed buildings, you're tasked with restoring your empire back to its former glory.

The game is played out in several episodes filled with missions, battles, and a campaign.

Missions include constructing buildings, collecting rent, or harvesting specific crops, with the campaign taking you through various battles in your attempt to control neighbouring islands.

Your first job, however, is to build.

Construction will be familiar to anyone who has played CityVille. A building's foundation requires multiple clicks en route to completion - each click taking a point off your energy, but rewarding you with coins and experience.

Housing, farms, and industrial buildings can also be commissioned: the former increases your population, while the latter two provide revenue and vital resources such as wood and oil.

Finally, military buildings allow you to create battle-ready troops, tanks, boats, and planes, with government premises increasing your population cap - an essential purchase since many projects stipulate a minimum population, or specific resources, before they can be built.

Unfortunately, this is one of the game's main issues as government buildings have to be staffed. If none of your friends are playing the game, your only option is to pay premium currency (earned in small amounts throughout) that will allow you to employ fictional characters.

If you don't have enough premium cash, you can either buy it with real-world money, or prepare for a long slog.

Fight them on the beaches

Throughout your tenure at the helm of the nation, you'll also be compelled to fight the good fight against a range of enemy forces.

Once you've selected the units you wish to participate in the forthcoming bloody skirmish, the fight will play out in split-screen Advance Wars-style. You can also select specific units and command them to attack desired chunks of the opposing battalion.

While there is some strategy involved - tank beats infantry, artillery beats tank, etc. - you don't have to push your little grey cells too hard to survive the brutality. In short, the game's casual integrity remains intact.

The battles - although short lived - are a welcome change of pace to what would otherwise be typical Zynga fare.

Regrettably, you spend more time building than you do fighting, so Empires & Allies can sometimes feel like CityVille with tacked on components.

Band of digital brothers

Besides the aforementioned staff role, your friends have several other uses in the world of Empires & Allies.

For instance, they can provide free power-ups in the heat of an encounter, send you free gifts on a daily basis, or purchase items from your market.

You can even invade them, pillaging resources, cash, and infamy if they fail to repel you. Not the evil type? Then you can help them out instead.

Overall then, Zynga's latest foray into Facebook is a success and manages to break up the repetitive gameplay of many casual freemium games.

A few pesky bugs are present, such as a server connection problem, but these are bound to be ironed out over time.

Zynga releases updates for the majority of its games on a regular basis, and with some due care and attention Empires & Allies has the potential to be one of the social giant's top titles.

Click on the following link to play Empires & Allies.